Parents, children, and evolving terms of moral condemnation

by Gina Schouten on September 14, 2021

When and how should someone be held responsible for having transgressed a moral standard that wasn’t widely recognized—and that they themselves didn’t recognize—at the time of the transgression? We’ve had lots of occasions to think about this question over the past few years.

Judgments in particular cases clearly depend on several variables. First, of course: Is the transgression ongoing or likely to recur absent holding responsible? And, even if it isn’t ongoing or recurrent: Was the transgressor to blame for not knowing the moral standard? What harms from the past transgression persist? Can they now be eased by holding the transgressor responsible? If so, by how much? How do we balance the harm of being held responsible under these circumstances against the harm we stand to ease? Those last questions in turn depend on what kind of holding responsible we have in mind.

Until a friend sent me this column, I hadn’t thought to apply these questions to the matter of grown children “cutting off” their parents in response to transgressions that weren’t—and in several cases seemingly still aren’t—recognized by the parents as such. From the column:

“The parents in these cases are often completely bewildered by the accusations. They often remember a totally different childhood home and accuse their children of rewriting what happened. As one cutoff couple told the psychologist Joshua Coleman: ‘Emotional abuse? We gave our child everything. We read every parenting book under the sun, took her on wonderful vacations, went to all of her sporting events.’”

The parents’ indignation suggests they believe that parenting books, sports events, and wonderful vacations somehow preclude abuse. But of course, the relationship may have been emotionally abusive even if what they say is true. Still, their indignation got me thinking that two forms of holding responsible are worth keeping distinct: First is the non-consensual severing of relations. Second is the naming of the offense: the designation of the parents’ treatment as “abusive.” I’m interested in thinking more about the latter.

Quoting again from the column:

“[P]art of the problem, as Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne has suggested, is there seems to be a generational shift in what constitutes abuse. Practices that seemed like normal parenting to one generation are conceptualized as abusive, overbearing and traumatizing to another.”

Obviously, there are important questions to ask about what merits the term “abusive.” The column doesn’t give any detailed examples to think through. But imagine some instance in which you think that both the designation “emotionally abusive” and the cutting off are perfectly legitimate forms of holding responsible. I want to know: Even in your case, if the designation meets with the parents’ sincere befuddlement, has something wrong happened to them? Some failure to preserve legibility across generations in our terms of moral condemnation? I’m not suggesting that sincere befuddlement obligates anyone not to sever ties or not to condemn. And I’m not suggesting that a grown child now cutting off her parents has an obligation to ensure that her parents fully understand the charges. But the parents’ befuddlement does make me wonder if the younger generation somehow failed collectively: Do those in the vanguard with respect to changing the meaning of morally condemnatory terms need to do more to bring others along? There may be good reason to expand the meaning of words like “abusive” or “violent.” But shouldn’t those accused of abuse and violence at least understand the meanings by which they stand accused?

{ 53 comments }

1

J-D 09.14.21 at 11:28 am

… The column doesn’t give any detailed examples to think through. …

Then there’s nothing to discuss. If my daughter condemned me, and I didn’t understand the condemnation, that bare description would provide insufficient information to judge whether she was at fault, or I, or both, or neither. If you knew why she had condemned me, and why I didn’t understand, then you might have enough information to form a judgement, but without that information you wouldn’t. I can say that it would be painful for me, and that I would prefer to understand, but that’s as far as it would be possible to go without more information.

2

Chetan Murthy 09.14.21 at 11:30 am

Parents abusing their children under color of [insert your favorite theory here] is an important subject. Regarding your question, the answer is plain as day:

“no”

The lack of comprehension of the abuser is irrelevant to the fact of the abuse, and the victim has no duty to even attempt to explain to the abuser why they’re being cut off. I’m 56 (hence not a “young”) and feel pretty strongly that no child of abuse owes their abuser a damn thing. Not. One. Damn. Thing.

Penultimate: indeed, what one generation thinks of as “good parenting” can be seen by the next generation as abuse. Corporal punishment was common in my childhood, both at home and in school. Authoritarian parents were common in the Texas of my youth [to be fair, they’re probably still pretty common today.] But now we have the science to know that such upbringings damage children in a cycle of pain that they then visit on their own offspring.

Last: I clicked-thru to the column, to find that it’s by David Brooks. I would suggest that we can wait a few days, and get a nice dissection, with the column flayed and pinned to the cardboard, by people like Yastreblyansky ( http://yastreblyansky.blogspot.com/ ) and probably a few others in the liberal blogosphere. A priori, nothing David Brooks writes should be taken seriously, as he’s a lazy right-wing hack. [I would refer the reader to the notorious [and almost-certainly fabricated] incident of him taking his working-class friend to an Italian sandwich shop.] Since the column is in FTFNYT, I can’t read it [paywall] but Brooks has a long-time business in reassuring the well-off that they’re doing everything right, and that the young and poor are both noisy and wrong.

3

hix 09.14.21 at 12:48 pm

The story i know from myself and many other cases with troubled parents relations in conjunction with more serious mental health issues is that the parents think they definitly have no mental health issue, it is only the childrens problem that the doctor is supposed to fix, if they concede that there is no such thing as mental ilness in the first place.

Side issue in the linked article: Giving Germany as an example for a nation with social expectations of close contact to one´s parents due to duty of care laws is uttterly misleading . The opposit is true – expectations of ongoing emotional ties are quite low by international standards.

4

Hunter K. 09.14.21 at 1:35 pm

Coming of age is an inherently traumatic experience, which is why it is continually hashed out across books, movies and other media with great popularity and success. However, denial can have great depths. Addicts often profess to not understand why their former friends cut them off, even as they systematically alienate them, and domestic abusers regularly have that same sense of victimization. It’s no mystery that domestic abuse and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand.

I’m sure there are indeed instances of, e.g., narcissistic offspring turning against perfectly reasonable and well-meaning parents, or of emotionally malleable/vulnerable offspring being encouraged to blame their parents for all of their emotional problems by mental health professionals who only have half of the story.

However, in the (admittedly anecdotal) experience of someone close to me who cut off her parents, her siblings who stayed in contact with them all embraced the cycle of abuse and are perpetuating it with their own children while continuing to be abused emotionally and physically by their parents.

There seems to be a popular impression that mental health professionals are the main drivers of parental estrangement, but quite the opposite: every counselor/therapist/psychologist my aforementioned friend has visited has pushed her to “reconnect” with her estranged parents, regardless of past harms and unhealthy cyclic behavior.

5

LizardBreath 09.14.21 at 2:35 pm

This is interesting, but I’m not sure what you’re talking about specifically. That is, if I understand the argument you’re making, it’s that there is some set of parenting practices or behaviors that young adults now see as abusive enough to cut off their parents over, but their parents at the time believed were good parenting: a young person might say “I am not speaking to my parents because they did X,” and the parents would reply “Yes, of course we did X, but X was acceptable at the time and I don’t understand why you think it’s wrong.” If I’ve understood the argument correctly, I can’t think of many specific candidates for X — corporal punishment maybe, overt racism or condemnation of homosexuality, but none of that would be all that confusing to anyone.

Where there is parental estrangement I’m familiar with, while the parents are mystified in sort of the terms you describe, the mystification is based on disagreement over what the parents’ actual conduct was, not on agreement on the facts but a change over time in what’s considered to be wrong.

What were you thinking of in terms of parenting expectations that’s changed confusingly?

6

Tm 09.14.21 at 3:23 pm

The framing strikes me as bewildering.

First, how can anybody judge whether the accusations of the children towards the parents are true? Obviously they have a perception and the parents have a different perception, but absent verifiable facts about events that we can describe as “abusive” by clear criteria, it is not clear that outsiders have any right to take sides.
Second, children are under no obligation to hold their parents in esteem and adults can choose to cut off anybody they wish (with the exception of their own not-yet-grown children). It is not a question of legitimacy that outsiders can judge.

I have a friend who is in that kind of situation. Her daughter (in her late thirties) accuses her of all sorts of terrible things. The daughter is mentally ill and in therapy, the mother is also in therapy and suffering terribly, not least from the feeling of being unable to help the daughter. The mother surely has made mistakes like everybody but she isn’t responsible for her daughter’s illness nor for her life happiness or lack thereof in general. The behavior of the daughter is in many ways abusive, but it would be inappropriate and way off the mark to try to pass moral judgment on either.

7

Tim B 09.14.21 at 4:48 pm

Do those in the vanguard with respect to changing the meaning of morally condemnatory terms need to do more to bring others along? There may be good reason to expand the meaning of words like “abusive” or “violent.” But shouldn’t those accused of abuse and violence at least understand the meanings by which they stand accused?

When the goal is to change specific practices, they do publicize the new meanings. Like with how even people who disagree know that there’s a push to redefine spanking as abuse, and probably some about the studies behind it.

But befuddlement and disagreement about basic reality sound like culture war markers. Like events are being interpreted and remembered differently as a result of fundamentally different models of how the world works. In which case, trying to pin down a definition is missing the point.

8

P.D. 09.14.21 at 4:49 pm

Parents aren’t entitled to access to their adult children.
If the offspring’s mental health depends on not interacting with parents, that’s the end of it. No wrong is done to the parents, whether they get it or not.

9

BruceJ 09.14.21 at 5:22 pm

It is a David Brooks column, meaning it has a an approximately 80% chance of being fractally wrong in it’s examples and conclusions. Seriously.

I’ve read columns where the person or study he quotes reached the precisely opposite conclusion; moreover his paeans to authority rarely rise above a hastily read “Cliffs Notes” (ore more often a hastily read tattered, used Cliff’s Notes version with pages missing and scrawled notes in them that he confuses for the original)

The lines for emotional abuse are not really any different than those for physical…I grew up in a time where it was perfectly acceptable for parents to spank their children, my own parents did so.

It is, nevertheless physical abuse, and is a factor in perpetuating the notion that violent acts within the family are permitted, or even encouraged. It is now even grounds for official intervention, even prosecution.

Had you said that to my parents in the early 60’s they’d probably would have looked at you like you had grown a third head; after all corporal punishment was standard almost entirely across society at the time. And while I’ve not asked her this I’ll wager my mom still doesn’t believe that spanking us was bad. It is, after all, the regime she’d grown up under as well.

The child is not responsible for the feelings of the parent, nor is an abuse victim responsible for educating their abuser over what constitutes the abuse.

That the social sphere of ‘moral condemnatory terms’ changes is how abusive behavior gets reduced

For an entirely different but exactly the same kind of thing, consider drunk driving. It used to be vastly more common and entirely more accepted. Sure people got busted and tickets, etc, but when society decided that it wasn’t acceptable any more, we changed the moral condemnatory terms around the issue.

Drunk drivers became not a thing that was bad, but simply accepted as part of ‘the way life was’ became ‘something bad that was to be actively acted against with harsh penalties.’

10

Matt 09.14.21 at 10:02 pm

I guess I’m less inclined than average to believe there’s a moral obligation to maintain relationships one doesn’t want to be in, at least between adults. But looking at this, I do worry that the adult children might be doing a poor job of thinking carefully about what it is they don’t like, and describing it in the best possible way, and are instead perhaps looking for a way to make themselves feel better about breaking a relationship that they think they would otherwise have an obligation to maintain. That sort of self-deception is pretty common, but also not especially admirable.

11

Anders 09.14.21 at 10:18 pm

Is the cutting-off necessarily condemnatory or morally charged?

ISTM one might cut off one’s parents just to preserve one’s own sanity, as a way of avoiding further mental anguish, rather than as payback. The question for me is: do parents have any right (other than common courtesy) to an explanation for cutting-off, and if so, to how thorough an explanation?

It breaks my heart to consider my (young) children would do this to me, but I can’t find any basis to argue that, if they did, I should deserve to have an explanation which satisfied me.

12

Barry Cotter 09.14.21 at 10:22 pm

You’re taking the accusations far too seriously. Lots of people hate their parents. Calling their behavior abusive is a convenient justification for cutting them off. If the combination of motivation and justification becomes socially acceptable people will self-modify whether consciously or subconsciously to sincerely hold the convenient opinions. Ian enormously disproportionate number of these people will be BPD, narcissistic or otherwise have exciting lives, as will their parents. If you avoid having children with these kinds of people it’s unlikely to happen to you, just as if you avoid marrying someone whose family has lots of divorces it’s a lot less likely to happen to you.

The justifications are new but the behavior isn’t. No doubt it’s becoming more common but that’s Americanisation. Culture bound psychological disorders like anorexia or school shooting spread as all English speakers become culturally American. So does cutting off.

13

both sides do it 09.14.21 at 10:23 pm

Interesting question! Tl;dr seems like something to be investigated empirically, not theoretically / normatively

But shouldn’t those accused of abuse and violence at least understand the meanings by which they stand accused?

This seems like the animating question and needs a lot more unpacking. It’s not obvious why this should be the case, either normatively or empirically. The legalistic rhetoric drags along associated ideas like “mentally fit to stand trial” etc that don’t work in social, interpersonal relations. Normatively, is there something like “rights” (or maybe, less rigorously, “social standards”) that are being violated if meanings aren’t understood in this case? Empirically, do bad things result? It’s not obvious on what level the question is being asked, and it’s not obvious the answers aren’t “no”

As a normative question, charging B (or B’s cohort) with A’s (cohort’s) failure to understand is . . . thorny. Even beyond A also bearing responsibility for “honest engagement” in a Habermas-ian way, there are myriad exogenous factors (eg, to take an easy one, society-wide lead poisoning harming capacity for empathy in a few generations) that can prevent understanding from taking place even given that “honest engagement”, etc. To say nothing of weighing the costs inflicted on B for attempting the communication.

Seems like the only approach that could bear fruit is empirical investigation: what happens when specific accusations aren’t understood across generations? In what contexts does it become worth it for the young to continue to, or give up on, explaining things to A, etc

14

GG 09.15.21 at 12:25 am

Gina –

You posit a couple of different scenarios which I believe should be clearly distinguished:
* The moral standard wasn’t widely recognized, and there is no reason to believe that the (alleged) transgressor was negligent in failing to recognize it.
* The moral standard was recognized (to some extent) and a plausible case can be made that the transgressor was negligent in recognizing it.

I don’t know that I have anything useful to say about the latter, but regarding the former, I think it raises fundamental questions about the purpose of moral systems and moral condemnation.

I propose (and this is certainly open for debate) that a primary purpose, if not the primary purpose, of moral systems is to provide a guide to “right action” i.e. treating others correctly. If we accept that as given, and further posit that whatever actions were taken were in conformance with right action (however defined), then it seems hard to justify any sort of moral condemnation. To condemn someone in those circumstances implies that the ought to have acted according to a different standard, one which they had no reason to believe was binding and which they may not have been aware of at all. “Ought” implies “can”, but you can’t abide by a set of rules that you aren’t aware exist.

15

Moz 09.15.21 at 3:13 am

shouldn’t those accused of abuse and violence at least understand the meanings by which they stand accused?

That’s the more general question, and plays into the legal theory that it should be possible for someone to know before they commit a crime that they will do so, and ideally they should be able to choose not to commit it. In practice, obviously, the legal system is full of what could charitably be called defects where neither of those things is even performatively attempted (as in the various ways that poverty and especially homelessness are criminalised).

Sadly we are in a situation where the moral wrongness of many things is contested, and “I didn’t know” is frequently used by bad faith actors. Dominic Cummings in the UK, for example, with his “I couldn’t see so I drove a car” excuse for violating covid lockdown suggestions, which to many is the public admission of a crime and thus punishment should be swift and certain… but he remains not just in possession of a license to drive, but lacks the conviction his crime justifies.

At an organisational level we have an international paedophile gang that arrogates many of the rights of a nation-state to itself, while claiming that its multitudinous child abuse offenses are simultaneously horrific and nothing to do with the organisation or anyone who has ever been part of it. “Come home Cardinal Pell” indeed.

Which leads to… yes, we do see people standing up in public and saying with every appearance of sincerity that they did not know that raping children is bad for them.

Against that backdrop trying to explain that harsh language can be abusive just seems like a complete waste of time. Can we first agree that raping children is always wrong?

But the parents’ befuddlement does make me wonder if the younger generation somehow failed collectively

The problem many of us have is that it’s very difficult to have those discussions without almost every parent feeling personally attacked. Which makes the counterpoint even harder to discuss, as any attempt to say “maybe the pendulum has swung too far” leads inexorably to “everything is fine, you can stop talking now”. But everything is not fine, my family with its rich tapestry of everything from verbal abuse to child rape… cannot even have a discussion about whether convincing a child that they’re worthless, stupid and ugly is normal or somehow might be in some way linked to the behaviour of one or both parents.

When every parent is like that… who can lead the discussion, and who can hear it?

16

BE Stranged 09.15.21 at 5:59 am

Great subject.

☆☆☆☆☆
A method, turning estrangement on its head. Having read this, when do we start the de-estrangement workshops? Link at end.

“DISCUSSION As addressed in the beginning of this paper felt experiences are idiosyncratic and to a large extend exist beyond language. To bring what is tacitly understood into an articulate space in ways that are coherent with felt experience requires an almost unimaginable act of translation. This almost unimaginable act is the main roadblock to effectively transferring, adopting and adapting EDI practices – their embodied nature is their great gift, yet this same gift frustrates attempts to express them in the form of the spoken or written word.”

Personal.
I was at times estranged from my parents but due to differences in parenting methods – sparse birth order and Dr Spock, my parents never hit me as had happened on occasion with the others. Lots if love & support yet missing in action due to workaholic parents. 

I am a conscientious parent and relatively laissez faire & cool-ish to the kids peer group parent … “However, … you can be a conscientious parent and your kid may still want nothing to do with you when they’re older.”. Oh no. If I became estranged from my progeny I would most certainly be beffuddled.

Conscientious parent & estrangement from:
“A Shift in American Family Values Is Fueling Estrangement

“Both parents and adult children often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century.

By Joshua Coleman

…” historian Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, told me in an email. “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”
https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/01/why-parents-and-kids-get-estranged/617612/

To counter my nemisis above – conscientious parent yet estranged -, I have done things my parents and I would have never done  – councelling, listening, giving agency, transparency and work secondary to home. I’ve instituted an hour a month “zero topic get yer “*$it” out kid” space. Good but not formal enough. Great vent, fun, discursive sharing & bond time.

An abduction in the family by a mentally ill relation bifurcated my privileged entitled homeostasis, allowing me to move past a militaristic and theology based education. Weird how events deemed traumatic may have a useful silver lining if acted on.

OP: “Practices that seemed like normal parenting to one generation are conceptualized as abusive, overbearing and traumatizing to another.”  

Yes. The only sibling of 5 to be permanently estranged was the only believer, a ‘serious’ Catholic. And this sibling has conceptualized and used flash bulb memories to justify estrangement – emotional abuse – even though a male child copped much more physical discipline. Emotional abuse (single data point) seems worse than physical relative to make / female parent / child. It’s complicated! 

I am well aware, and am currently trying to broach all this with an old friend who is super entitled, minimally empathic and a high achiever. We were estranged for 25yrs. His daughter is,  at 13, already telling him to eff off. They will have to endure the parent friend rescuer syndrome I fear, until the cows come home. Not befuddlement, just blindness. Maleness by physical world, emotions squashed. His father led a double life, ex military,  dumped a disabled child in a ‘home’ – basically lied from day one. Add money and again, single sex religo-militaristic school and bingo. Estrangement. 

You say “But shouldn’t those accused of abuse and violence at least understand the meanings by which they stand accused?”. Yes, but not in their bones. See ☆☆☆☆☆.
*

Even a wiki. 
wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_estrangement
*

Couldn’t find topology if abuse – clisest wasa misoginistic microcosm. Yet…
 “Definition and typology of violence”
https://www.who.int/violenceprevention/approach/definition/en/
*

☆☆☆☆☆
A method, turning estrangement on its head.

“Embodied Design Ideation Methods: analysing the power of estrangement

Estrangement To “re-learn” [50] how to look at the world most, if not all, EDI researchers bring the body into situations that turn the familiar upside-down as means to enable reflection on the intimate and the tacit [4, 36, 70]. These are strategies of estrangement. Estrangement has been used as a basic strategy in artistic expression, ethnography and design, throughout the twentieth century [4, 13]. It is epitomised in the surrealist slogan “making the ordinary extra ordinary” [41], and can be understood as what Russian Formalist Art critic, “…

…”Thus, we formulated this concept through the following questions:
– What is done to disrupt the usual way of doing [something] or the current state of affairs? What physical or conceptual elements are added to or taken away from the body or the action?
– What is destabilised by this disruption? What norms, traditions, structures, or systems become – conceptually or physically – unstable?
– What emerges from this destabilisation? What does it bring into awareness? How is the previous landscape altered?
– What does this entire process embody? What idea, quality, or feeling does the process give tangible or visible form to?
To further clarify how these questions are to be understood we looked to formal (OED) definitions of the key words:

• To disrupt is to prevent a process or an event from continuing as usual or as expected. A disruption acts in a temporal context.
• To destabilise is to render a system or a structure unstable. A destabilisation acts in a structural or systemic context.
• To emerge is for something to come out of something or from behind something.
• To embody is to express, or give a tangible or visible form to (an idea, quality, or feeling).

“Indeed, a disruption is an event in time that temporarily or permanently destabilizes (something) and from this destabilization something new emerges. When you throw a stone into the water it is a disruption that destabilizes the surface and from this a pattern of ripples emerges. The disruption can be physical (e.g. the throwing of a stone) or conceptual (e.g. a new procedure); what it destabilizes can equally be physical (e.g. the water) or conceptual (e.g. perception of a practice); and finally what emerges can be ideas for new physical designs (e.g. vibrating clothing) or for designs grounded in new values or desires (e.g. embodied communication).

“DISCUSSION As addressed in the beginning of this paper felt experiences are idiosyncratic and to a large extend exist beyond language. To bring what is tacitly understood into an articulate space in ways that are coherent with felt experience requires an almost unimaginable act of translation. This almost unimaginable act is the main roadblock to effectively transferring, adopting and adapting EDI practices – their embodied nature is their great gift, yet this same gift frustrates attempts to express them in the form of the spoken or written word.”

Danielle Wilde
Anna Vallgårda
Oscar Tomico
https://pure.itu.dk/portal/files/82442747/WildeVallg_rdaTomico_Embodied_Design_Ideation_Methods_analysing_the_power_of_estrangement.pdf

17

Moz In Oz 09.15.21 at 7:28 am

Also, big helping of selection bias in this stuff. We hear a lot from aggrieved people, and not a lot from those unaffected or who are over it.

Where you can read the stories is the online advice forums (reddit relationships and relationship_advice for example) which have many posts on the topic from people who are either wondering whether they should go no contact with parents (or children, or ex-partners etc), and occasionally from people wondering how to persuade no-contact people to resume contact. Some of the latter are frankly terrifying to read, a lot of “if I stop beating my 30 year old child can I make them let me see my grandchildren” and “my 40 year old has closed the bank account I made her keep her money in” (shades of French former colonies!) etc.

There’s also a lot of gaslighting and denial by unpleasant people. Reddit “am I the asshole” gets these probably more than the relationships subs. Often it starts with them just leaving out huge chunks “my son left abruptly during a visit for no reason, and now won’t answer the phone” but then in comments “he is spoiling his child and I corrected him” and “the child is fat so I won’t let it eat”… it starts to make sense after a while.

Here’s a nice simple one: very reasonable parents unhappy that their 27 year old child is behaving like a heathen:
https://www.reddit.com/r/AmItheAsshole/comments/g9gdr5/aita_for_not_standing_up_for_my_sister_when_our/

This one has a fun twist but shows how different people can have quite different ideas about what has happened, and that often comes out when you ask questions
https://www.reddit.com/r/BestofRedditorUpdates/comments/pnsmt3/op_spoke_his_truth_and_got_a_reality_check_newest/

18

Chris Bertram 09.15.21 at 8:31 am

I seem to remember reading about these alarming stats on child-parent estrangement a few months ago, and I’ve been searching without success for the article I saw, but I did find this one:

https://www.economist.com/united-states/2021/05/20/how-many-american-children-have-cut-contact-with-their-parents

There seem to be some distinctively American drivers of this phenomenon.

19

nastywoman 09.15.21 at 1:07 pm

@
‘There seem to be some distinctively American drivers of this phenomenon’.

Oh –
for sure –
and I could tell you guys stories…

20

J, not that one 09.15.21 at 1:19 pm

The view of social obligations described by Brooks seems odd and reductive. Adult children break with their parents because they don’t understand their obligations? Is this addressed to those adult children? Is it addressed to their friends and neighbors who should be guilting them more, or who need social affirmation for their beliefs that they should hassle their friends who say they were abused? To someone else?

The social changes described are also simplistic, as if children raised in traditional families woke up one morning, nothing and no one else having changed in hundreds of years, and decided to feel their families’ recognition mattered to them and they were going to change the world singlehandedly. That’s probably due to space considerations, maybe.

21

nastywoman 09.15.21 at 1:25 pm

and under the quoted article from Mel Brooks there was the following comment – and NYT ‘pick’ with 1348 recommends:

‘Donald Trump tore my family apart. My son no longer speaks to me because I’m not a Trump supporter. There was no big argument or anything, it’s just that once he knew how I felt, he cut me off. Quit answering phone calls, quit responding to emails. I had no idea why at first. I am more mystified than anything and I just have to believe that with time he’ll realize how strange it is. It’s like I’ve lost him to a cult’.

And is there anything more to say?

22

SamChevre 09.15.21 at 1:37 pm

It seems to me that there are two questions that should be separated here.

Refusing to stay in contact with someone is a personal decision: it may be a bad decision, but it’s not one for which some kind of social approval should be needed. (It’s part of the general freedom of association family, which is a much-neglected but very key right in my thinking.)

Publicly accusing someone of abuse, on the other hand, seems like it’s an accusation intended to influence others: that seems to imply that it should be true, and possible to substantiate by a set of shared standards.

23

Gina Schouten 09.15.21 at 1:52 pm

This discussion has been really helpful to me in clarifying for myself what’s behind my framing of these questions. Thanks, and thanks especially to LizardBreath for this: “if I understand the argument you’re making, it’s that there is some set of parenting practices or behaviors that young adults now see as abusive enough to cut off their parents over, but their parents at the time believed were good parenting: a young person might say “I am not speaking to my parents because they did X,” and the parents would reply “Yes, of course we did X, but X was acceptable at the time and I don’t understand why you think it’s wrong.” … I can’t think of many specific candidates for X …”

This is great. The kind of thing I have in mind is an overbearing intrusiveness that’s not too far off the kind of intensive involvement that characterizes middle-class parenting in the US now. So, like, imagine some parents (I’m not saying this is true of the parents quoted in the piece, thus all my hypothetical and conditionalizing language) that are trying to do good involved middle-class parenting, and every time parenting gets hard, they just lean in harder. I can easily imagine that being very damaging–maybe rightly called abusive, in some cases–but also filling in a common X if we take X to refer to the conjunction of all the specific parenting practices. Both parties agree the parents did these specific things; the kid now says it was abuse (plausibly rightly); the parents are befuddled.

I think what’s got me on about this is my own experience of finding parenting hard, and knowing that try as I might to think independently, I’m probably unduly influenced in looking for help by the norms of my time and by the assertions of whoever sounds most confident or has the most letters after her name (I’m oversimplifying, obviously). Maybe my thought is that some of these parents are just influenced by the norms of their time and their social group, and executing them imperfectly under challenging conditions, and that maybe they’re owed some kind of give-and-take of reasons that they can understand if they try, even if they’re not owed that by their own kid.

__

Let me also underline a couple of points from the original post that I think some of the comments may be losing track of:

“I’m not suggesting that sincere befuddlement obligates anyone not to sever ties or not to condemn. And I’m not suggesting that a grown child now cutting off her parents has an obligation to ensure that her parents fully understand the charges.”

24

J, not that one 09.15.21 at 2:42 pm

Gina @ 23

I doubt (as a parent) it’s possible for an outsider to the relationship to look at it and say “this is too overbearing” (or too little) except in extreme cases. I couldn’t say I know which of my child’s friends have parents who push them, for the most part, and have seen (and made) some incorrect assumptions in that regard. But I don’t know.

It’s interesting though that we aren’t questioning the parents’ assertions that they want only “normal” levels of attention from their adult children, or that people 100 years ago would agree that that was “normal.”

25

Tm 09.15.21 at 3:09 pm

In addition to 6 above, let me state that I think moralizing parenthood (which in practice usually means motherhood, as an aside), is a terrible idea which causes lots of suffering. We can go back at least to Freud popularizing the idea that mental problems are almost always caused by “childhood trauma” and such, i. e. it’s the parents fault (*). That crude theory has become very widespread but I thought we had gotten over it?

Some parents are really abusive in verifiable ways and for those cases there are laws, but most are trying to do their best, and all make mistakes. Parental guilt has led to all sorts of parenting fads that have caused harm to both children and parents (helicopter parenting is my favorite). Parents who sincerely love their children and have done what they believed best shouldn’t have to feel guilt for the mistake they inevitably made, and children should live and take responsibility for their own lives instead of obsessing over their parents’ failings. Parents must however accept the choices their adult children make, even if they are hurtful, as long as their conduct doesn’t itself cross legal lines (making false accusations would be one example). Outsiders should almost always refrain from taking sides in such conflicts, unless they have very intitmate knowledge of the persons and events concerned, and even then it’s usually better to refrain from judgment and instead offer whatever support can be given that the parties are willing to accept.

Finally: The way childcare is organized in our society (i. e. the nuclear family) is simply not species-appropriate. Children shouldn’t spend most of their time around the same one or two adults, they should have several adult caregivers and crucially, spend most of their time around other children, mostly free of adult supervision. That this is near impossible in our society is a systemic problem that parents and children both are suffering from. To discuss this suffering in moralizing and individualizing terms, as the OP does, strikes me as a step backwards.

(*) I’m not suggesting that mental problems are always at issue, just that that is one important way in which parental guilt has been introduced in popular discourse.

26

hix 09.15.21 at 3:15 pm

How often do parents really not know why their children cut ties with them? My father sure would claim he has no clue why i was unhappy with my upbringing and up to a point he would be right, because he always had a talent for genuinly just forgetting major events. He also would never think for a second to ask nowadays and goes to great lenghts to avoid hearing anything unasked. I had permanent chronical headaches from age 13 till about 24 . I woke up with the pain and went to bed with it. In all likelyhood that was some kind of psychosomatic distorted depression stuff. My father has completly forgotten that was the case! Since everything pointed towards a psychological cause and such things shall not be, it wasn´t. I learned not to talk about it anymore after a while, since at best, i would be sent to a homeopath. While abusive is not the term i´d use for that behaviour, and many other aspects of my childhood were quite privileged, it is still pretty hard not to be rather angry about that general finger in the ear eyes closed, you got everything i did not have as a child, now be happy i order you approach to the ugglier things that happend.

27

nastywoman 09.15.21 at 4:00 pm

@
‘I think what’s got me on about this is my own experience of finding parenting hard, and knowing that try as I might to think independently, I’m probably unduly influenced in looking for help by the norms of my time and by the assertions of whoever sounds most confident or has the most letters after her name (I’m oversimplifying, obviously)’.

So how about learning from these countries Mr. Brooks mentions?

‘A study published in 2010 found that parents in the U.S. are about twice as likely to be in a contentious relationship with their adult children as parents in Israel, Germany, England and Spain’.

Or even better… Italy?
As I have found out – that in Italy – it’s nearly impossible to think about ‘some set of parenting practices or behaviors that young adults see as abusive enough to cut off their parents.’

‘La Famiglia’ is EVERYTING and comes before EVERYTHING.

28

Tzimiskes 09.15.21 at 4:25 pm

Usually lurk but rarely comment, but I thought I’d chime in because no one mentioned this.

Reading the Brooks column made me instantly think of a lot of people from Evangelical backgrounds who have cut their parents off. I think Brooks tries to cite some examples that make it sound like over parenting, but the examples of this I hear people talking about most often is parents who won’t leave off on religious issues and their kid’s sexual conduct. A parent looking for it can find a lot of parental advice that can emphasize doing family activities like going to church together or needing to make sure their kids aren’t making mistakes in their love lives. This kind of thing can be really overbearing and rather traumatic for a kid finding that their moral identity does not match that of their parents, especially if they have very different attitudes towards sex. Bring politics into it, where a parent is highly vocal about things that a kid feels critical to their identity, and a child can feel really alienated.

No data, this is all anecdotal and third hand anecdotes at that, but when I hear people talking about or writing about these issues this is by far the most common example I hear about. Sex and religion are at the base of most of these divides.

29

Trader Joe 09.15.21 at 5:36 pm

@25 TM +1
@28 Tzimiskes +1

In the case at hand I think its impossible to judge, as others have suggested. I can imagine cases (maybe as described in @28) where I’d 100% agree with the adult child. I can imagine other cases where I’d say the parents are right and the snowflake needs to grow-up (hard to give parents a 100% agree though since clearly the child they purport to care about has an issue of some sort).

The personal thought question for myself is “What obligations do I owe as a (rather old but adult) child and what obligations do I expect from my own largely adult children?” Need they be congruent?

I’ve been blessed to have good relationships both directions but there have been fraught moments each way as well. For me, personally, more communication – not less (as in cut-off) was the best path, but I’m doubtful its a one-size-fits-most solution either.

Interestingly this seems like a topic(s) where “It depends” is the appropriate first rung of the decision ladder – which of course is rarely satisfying to people who love binary solution sets.

30

Chetan Murthy 09.15.21 at 6:26 pm

Dear Ms. Schouten,

My first comment was written with some decent amount of anger; after a day-or-so, I’m feeling a little less triggered, so I thought I’d try to write something more coherent.

Children of abuse will read your piece and your last sentence will stand out, simply because it is the last sentence. The previous sentences that mitigate it are going to pale in light of that last sentence, which will be read (as I read it) as giving some sort of cover to abusers by arguing that “if they don’t understand they’re abusers, then how bad could it really be?” I understand you don’t want to do this, but this is the reality.
Victims of abuse never, ever, ever owe anything to their abusers. I’ve read about a recent trend to push victims of sexual abuse and rape [SMDH] to engage in “restorative justice” with their attackers [again, SMDH], and that’s the first thing that came to mind as I read your piece.

Victims of abuse never, ever, ever owe anything to their abusers.

You and others wrote about something that is less-than-abuse, but for which children might cut off their parents. Many things come to mind. Many things in my own childhood come to mind. As above, I think it’s important to remember that no child owes their parent consideration for having been brought into this world. Parents do all sorts of awful things to their children (as Philip Larkin wrote: “they fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do”).
Nobody has performed the inevitable fisking of this David Brooks column, but I fully expect that such will arrive soon enough. There’s a physicist I know who once said (about a particular corporate bigwig’s latest well-funded product initiative) “I’ve run that experiment enough times that I don’t have to run it again to know what the outcome will be”. By which he meant that this guy had a history of serially being given large amounts of development money for his project, blowing that money, and producing a smoking crater. Over and over. My friend didn’t need to see the outcome of this latest project, to know how it would turn out.

I think similar things can be said of any David Brooks column: the probability that it will be some ass-covering bafflegab for the GrOPers is mighty high: high enough that if one must read his work, it’s incumbent on the reader to do so with a jaundiced eye. He’s not an honest reporter.

31

Tzimiskes 09.15.21 at 6:49 pm

Realized my earlier comment didn’t really make the tie with the central question of the topic very clear.

My thought is a lot of the perceived difference in abuse comes from the parents and children operating under completely incompatible moral standards. The parents are trying to teach their children how to function within a social and moral context that the parents believe is necessary to live a good life. The children, however, believe they should have autonomy to choose their own social context and don’t believe that the parent’s vision of morality is the only one available.

For the parent, the moral standard they are measuring themselves against is one in which they are required to teach their children about these social and moral expectations. However, for the children, the moral standard involves giving themselves agency to make their own moral judgments rather than having these choices made for them. The lack of understanding comes from the incompatibility of the moral standards that the children and parents hold. The children hold up moral standards that involve giving agency and equal authority to others, the parents believe in moral standards that are independent of the individual, apply equally to everyone, and necessarily impose a form of hierarchical order based on an individual’s willingness to submit themselves to those moral standards.

Not sure if there is any data to back this kind of thing up, but I certainly see a lot of people writing about these situations online. Also it’s probably a far more common problem in the US given its relative religiosity then it is in other countries.

32

Ebenezer Scrooge 09.15.21 at 8:32 pm

I think that people are oversimplifying the problem by identifying abusive behavior as violent. Things get a lot more complex with other behaviors.

Consider Stereotyped Immigrant™ who hounds and harasses their child until the kid graduates from medical school at the Top of Their Class.™ Consider the kid’s easygoing friend with easygoing parents, who never gets a decent job. Which kid feels abused? And why? (And when?)

33

Starry Gordon 09.15.21 at 8:45 pm

It’s kind of interesting that so many people assume that they possess the moral status to pass definitive judgement on others and punish them with ostracism. I think there’s something in a book about that.

34

Kiwanda 09.15.21 at 8:50 pm

Sometimes overbearing intrusiveness is tied to a parental high anxiety that makes the child anxious also. (“If you take this one evening off, you might not get an A+ on that assignment, and if you don’t get an A+, you might kill your chances of going to an Ivy League school…”.) This can go on to a degree that could be called abusive (or at any rate, is very unhelpful to the child), and yet, the parent is oblivious, or only considers their behavior to be positive.

Conversely, parenting can be so laid back or neutral as to communicate indifference, so a child who is not materially neglected can simply not feel loved, and starved for parental affection. Here also a parent could well be oblivious to the impact of their behavior, or only consider it positive.

35

J-D 09.15.21 at 11:46 pm

Maybe my thought is that some of these parents are just influenced by the norms of their time and their social group, and executing them imperfectly under challenging conditions, and that maybe they’re owed some kind of give-and-take of reasons that they can understand if they try, even if they’re not owed that by their own kid.

If it’s not owed by the children, by whom can it be owed?

I’ve been in the position, not with my own child but with other people, of being aware that I’ve given offence and of not knowing how. I would like an explanation (it’s distressing not having one), but nobody is under an obligation to provide it. It would be much more painful if it were my daughter I’d offended. I can easily imagine the parents who are thinking (and perhaps also saying) ‘I’d just like to know what I did wrong!’ I sympathise with their distress. It could be horrible.

However, it seems worth adding that sometimes people who say ‘I’d just like to know what I did wrong!’ are disguising (perhaps to themselves) that what they’re really feeling is ‘I’d like an opportunity to demonstrate that I did nothing wrong!’ I know (from my own experience, as mentioned) that sometimes it’s difficult to find out how one has done wrong. However, there are also situations (many of them) where people could easily find out how they’ve done wrong if they made the attempt, but don’t sincerely want to, because they wouldn’t like it if they did.

36

Moz In Oz 09.16.21 at 12:08 am

The forward-looking question of “how can I avoid making my kids cut contact as soon as they’re able” is IMO very different to asking why current adults cut their parents off. The social context is different, for starters. Rather than discussion of just how much violence against children is necessary (ie, the 1960’s) parents these days are more likely to be wondering whether they should take their children on an aeroplane, or let them take puberty blockers.

But I’m betting there will be a swing, and I have no idea which way. I suggest looking at conditions in refugee camps and seeing how parenting and child alienation work in those places, because that’s a likely outcome if you extrapolate current trends (both environmentally and politically… refugee camps and concentration camps are a ‘home’ for more people every year). Or you could watch youth politics and try to work out where kids growing up around pansexual ASD climate extremists are going to end up.

You can’t stop your kids being exposed to this stuff. Even the most devout nihilist can’t stop their kids seeing the arguments their fellow nihilists are making in public, and wondering what they’re arguing against. After enough “Trump is the real president” discussion most kids are going to wonder… “why is this being said? Who thinks Trump isn’t the real president?” And once they’re old enough to access the internet questions like that are very easily answered. In this case Biden was sworn in and occupies the White House. Real President{tm}?

At best you can work to prepare your child(ren) for that access, and help them become critical consumers of the poisonous online environment. You kind of need to do that, because there’s everything from canonisation of Greta Thunberg to worship of Donald Trump on the internet, and no way to filter that stuff out (whichever way your politics lean). And obviously there’s porn in technicolour glory. But also predators of all sorts, from “eat Pringles chips” to “send nudes now”, and to many of us Red Bull Extreme Sports is the more dangerous of the two.

37

Moz In Oz 09.16.21 at 12:22 am

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/15/generational-conflict-over-climate-crisis-is-a-myth-uk-study-finds

Richard Webb, executive editor of New Scientist, said: “Far from being an obsession of a young, activist few, support for measures that put our lives on a more sustainable footing as we look to building back from the Covid-19 pandemic command broad support across generations,”

Note that the adults saying they want action… are not acting. There’s a solid 10% in Australia willing to or have changed their behaviour, even though 60%+ think everyone should change. That gap matters. Especially the “we must act” who vote consistently for inaction, or counter-action in the case of those voting for the Australian Liberal or National parties.

It will be interesting to see what happens as the climate catastrophe continues, whether buying indulgences continues to be acceptable or will actual behaviour change be required. Another New Scientist editor said recently “flying with my family for a holiday in Greece, but it’s ok because we’re vaccinated and buying offsets”. Sure, it’s not as bad, but the context is that we can’t vaccinate everyone and we have to stop flying.

At best that change will be forced by younger folk, at worst those younger folk will also become nihilists… but at least some of them will be young, active nihilists who have a grudge against the people who wrecked their futures. The article above is trying to suggest that most young people will just give up and accept that they’re going to die early from preventable causes. I’m more optimistic than that.

38

Robespierre 09.16.21 at 5:03 am

Gee, David, maybe think about it before you re-marry with your 30-years-junior research assistant.

39

BE Stranged 09.16.21 at 5:55 am

I am keen to hear of estrangement through the ages. Is it just shifting triggers and justifications?

And:
“Unhappy families: Nine out ten adults estranged from family find Christmas difficult

“A new report looking at the experiences of people who are estranged from family members and the challenges they face has highlighted the particular difficulties associated with Christmas.

“Social media plays a part because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together

“Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood, a collaboration between the charity Stand Alone and the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, is the first in depth piece of UK research on family estrangement. It examines the experiences of over 800 people who self-identify as being estranged from their whole family or a key family member, such as their mother, father, siblings or children.

“Becca Bland, Chief Executive of Stand Alone, says: “Family is a huge part of our individual and collective lives and an unconditionally loving, supportive group of relations is idealised in society. Yet this is not always attainable for those who are estranged from their family or a family member. I’m sure this research will be challenging to read, but I’m hopeful that as a society we have the strength to keep listening to people in this position, with the view to eventually understanding why our adult family relationships are not always as unconditionally close and supportive as we might wish and imagine them to be.”

“The report provides an understanding of family estrangement and its characteristics as well as detailing the challenges participants faced when living without contact with family or a key family member. Common factors that contribute to relationship breakdown with parents, siblings and children include emotional abuse, clashes of personality and values, and mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships.

“However, estrangement does not necessarily mean there is no contact between family members…”…

https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/unhappy-families-nine-out-ten-adults-estranged-from-family-find-christmas-difficult

http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf

40

BE Stranged 09.16.21 at 6:10 am

While composing this outside, listening to the birds and minimal traffic during lockdown, I am hearing estrangement happening in real time “I don’t want to hear you anymore”. I live in a “good” neighborhood, all single detached dwellings. In sunny down under. 

Links below via;

“Debunking Myths About Estrangement

“New research challenges the deeply held notion that family relationships can’t be dissolved and suggests that estrangement is not all that uncommon.”…
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/well/family/debunking-myths-about-estrangement.html

“Last month, Lucy Blake, a lecturer at Edge Hill University in England,published a systematic review of 51 articles about estrangement in the Journal of Family Theory & Review. 
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1756-2589/earlyview

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0093650217715542

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0312407X.2014.927897

Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0312407X.2015.1004355?jour%20nalCode=rasw20

41

Fake Dave 09.16.21 at 9:22 am

There are fairly clear socioeconomic reasons why young adults trying to establish themselves in careers and homes and families of their own might want to avoid excessive emotional entanglement with aging relatives. Yuppie culture in particular has really enshrined the narrative of moving away from home to “make it” in the city and to “hustle” by taking whatever job in whatever places will advance their career and housing prospects. Some people may be able to pursue that lifestyle while meeting their parents emotional needs and social demands, but for others it’s too much. There’s always some grievances associated with cutting off contact, but people can work through a lot if their bonds are strong and the relationships are fulfilling a need. If relationships are already strained though, dealing with people who are difficult, demanding, judgemental, needy, or just irritating can seem like a terrible burden. Some people are going to find reasons to shed that burden. Not all of them are going to be good reasons, but being in a draining, stressful relationship can be a reason in itself, even if the parents haven’t necessarily done anything “wrong” — at least no more wrong than plenty of parents whose children stayed.

42

Tm 09.16.21 at 3:11 pm

41: “Yuppie culture in particular has really enshrined the narrative of moving away from home …”

I thought the phenomenon of young adults moving away from their parents to live their own lives is a bit older than yuppie culture…

43

Patrick 09.16.21 at 8:19 pm

As usual most of the commenters are actively choosing ignorance, and avoiding the question on purpose.

The answer to the question that was actually posed is yes.

In a way the situation that OP asks about is worse than OP thinks.

The problem isn’t a failure of inter generational communication. The problem is that the toxicity of Internet culture and ridiculousness of pop activist academia has left a large segment of society beholden to a moral code that they feel very intensely, but can’t even define to each other.

So even when something that’s genuinely wrong happens, they end up grasping for a way to express it, and latching onto concepts that don’t really mean what they want.

The younger generation didn’t just fail their parents. They were failed by them, in that they were left with an incoherent moral system and an incoherent set of terminology.

44

SamChevre 09.16.21 at 8:32 pm

Kanchan Nehra is spam.

I’ll support Tzimiskes @ 28 and #1, and extend to note that substance use/abuse is another major factor in the anecdata I’ve seen. Whether it’s an unsuitable sexual relationship or excessive drinking, the parents saying “you’re doing something harmful” and the child disagreeing seems to drive a lot of the cutting off contact stories I hear.

45

Fake Dave 09.16.21 at 9:11 pm

@43 Every David Brooks column seems to be spawned from posh cocktail party chatter, so that’s who I generally assume he’s talking about. Of course moving away from home has a long history, but many of those people expected to come back eventually and there is also a long history of people staying in touch with parents and even sending money home. Fillial obligation runs deep in many societies even when actual relationships are not ideal. Individual reasons for cutting off parents matter, but so does social acceptance for that behavior. Plenty of judgey conservative types still get scandalized by kids who stop calling, but for workaholics and a lot liberal counterculture types, leaving home and never looking back is almost a badge of pride. Children of abuse are likely to identify with needing to cut off “toxic” relationships, but toxicity is subjective and can have more to do with threats to the ego than health and wellfare. in many cases they may simply be replicating social forms of “making your way” or “finding yourself” that, ironically, they may have learned from their own distant, work obsessed parents. The cat’s in the cradle and all that.

46

Mac 09.17.21 at 12:35 am

One possible re-framing of the whole question is whether children owe anything to parents has to do with obligations and who has them. If the parents have all the obligations, they can only fail to meet them and the child is free to do what they will.

One thing that is startling to me is what I perceive of as the view of certain Americans is that parenting is a bit like a service and all the duties go in one direction from parent to child. So for them the bar of good parenting is very high. (This could simply be my perception.)

I don’t want to oversimplify the complexity but they seem to have a slightly transaction view of their parents and can almost sound like their parents did not give them good service. The requirements of good parenting are very nebulous as well but seem to be weighed in terms of how adapted and happy the person turns out to be.

I see so many cultural influences in terms of the huge effect of certain narratives from therapy as well as the influence of American individualism.

Certain kinds of psychotherapy must be responsible for some of this? People are often unhappy and blame their parents for that as far as I can tell. I am skeptical most of our problems are anyone’s fault or even if they are, we can be sure whose fault they are. People who reject their parents have a different view that they learn in therapy. (When I am skeptical they tend to think I had a glorious childhood but like most people I had a terrible childhood.)

However, it is hard to suffer as so many of us do and so if you believe that you know whose fault your suffering is, it isn’t too much of a leap to decide you don’t want to be around the cause of your suffering. It’s very easy to think of examples such as ‘they never believed in me.’ Or ‘they were critical of me.’ Often people will say their discomfort with their physical appearance or lack of personal confidence is due to some casual remark from a parent that was typical and that the parents did not give them the skills they needed to succeed in life and be happy.

American parents tend to be more complimentary and emotionally supportive of their children than parents in other cultures so it is very interesting that Americans have higher expectations for parental support than much of the world.

This is very different from my own perspective –which is also culturally influenced of course–whereby one’s parents gave one everything to survive for many year and this was quite a lot. Being amazing at nurturing your sprit and helping you flourish is sort of an added addition that will inspire intense emotional devotion but failing at that is really not a dealbreaker if one’s parents were simply incapable (likely because of circumstances beyond their control).

Roughly this view is something like–one is thrown together with one’s family by chance but there is tremendous interdependence between parents and children as a result and the dependency shifts as I get older and my parents get older whereby they may be dependent on me for their happiness and just as they could make my life hard as a child now I can make their life hard. So now they are the vulnerable ones and I have the power. Because the relationship is not transactional but a dependency relationship (much easier if it contains love). So it’s not so different from having children in a sense that you simply end up responsible for people because you have a unique relationship with them–one where you have power and they are vulnerable.

However, the people who have the opposing view of parenting you describe tend to think the parents took on a type of contactual obligation where all the risks were on their side so if they failed to hold up their end, the contract can be broken.

On this view even if your parents screwed up very badly you still have a specific kind of power vis a vis their happiness and even their fate so you still have the obligations to them.

However, I wonder if these estrangements are more common because American parents may also put a great deal of pressure on their children to succeed in our extremely competitive culture. So it could be that turnabout is fair game in that way–like the parents somehow give the children the idea the love is conditional or they are evaluating their children by the standards of the culture and then the children turn around and do the same thing.

Or it could be that families have become child-centered so people grow up and whatever is important to their parents cannot matter because what parents want in a parent-child relationship simply isn’t very important.

My guess is that there is no objective measure to these standards but good parenting would require ‘being able to function in one’s society’ and our society does not allow people to function very well. So if our parents are the only people we can blame for this, they will get the blame. We tend to favor individualist explanations for all of our struggles and this would simply be another instance of that.

47

J-D 09.17.21 at 2:39 am

As usual most of the commenters are actively choosing ignorance, and avoiding the question on purpose.

It’s helpful that you’ve chosen to begin your comment by making clear that your purpose is to sneer.

The answer to the question that was actually posed is yes.

Multiple questions were posted in the original post But as your purpose is to sneer, actually making your meaning clear (which would be a prerequisite to judging whether your comment is accurate, which it well may not be) would most likely be an obstacle.

48

Gorgonzola Petrovna 09.17.21 at 10:54 am

The Fifth Commandment. They will burn in Hell. Nay, they’ll freeze in Hell. Deep down, in the Ninth Circle.

49

oldster 09.17.21 at 11:20 am

Chet Murthy has done an excellent job highlighting Brooks’ characteristic bad faith and interminable right-wing propagandizing, but he has forgotten to mention Brooks’narcissism.
Every DB column is about DB. If he writes a column saying, “it’s a real moral quandary whether brilliant and attractive middle aged guys should screw their college-aged research assistants,” then you know that DB is screwing his intern.
Accordingly, this column simply tells us that one or more of Brooks’ children from his first marriage has been insufficiently grateful to him recently, and he’s pretending both that it’s a moral quandary and a social trend.
When in fact, he’s just a self-absorbed narcissist who dumped his first family so he could continue screwing interns. And maybe some of his first family think worse of him for that.

50

J, not that one 09.17.21 at 1:33 pm

I’m still curious whether some of this is driven by the parents. Yes, other societies have a stronger emphasis on continuing family ties than the US generally does. But some of them (say Italy) have a higher tolerance for conflict, and other (say China) place a greater emphasis on tact, than we do. A low tolerance for conflict, combined with a low willingness to be tactful, and possibly a failure to understand social roles properly (e.g. that the relationship with the adult child is different than that with the toddler or teenager), resulting in a one-sided discourse that their adult children aren’t being virtuous in their relations with themselves, seems a recipe for disaster.

51

MisterMr 09.17.21 at 2:08 pm

So we all live in a society, and society goes on because we have a lot of cultural models that we tend to follow, like “good parent”, “good husband”, “good daughter” etc.
Generally moral judgement depends on how close one acts to those models, that however are idealized models, not exactly what real people live in their real lives.

On the other hand we also have a set of hard concepts of rights and duties, that are less strict than the idealized models.

For example, an ideal husband would love his wife a lot; but some real husbands might stlil live with their wives without loving them very much anymore. Some will gi farther and, for example, beat their wives.
The husbands who beat their wives are going against the “hard” right and duties, and therefore should be punished etc.; but the husbands who don’t love their wives anymore, they are not ideal husbands anymore, but they are not really going against an obligation, they are in the grey zone: neither “good” (the idealized models) nor really “bad” (going beyond the hard obligations).

If we think in terms of “hard” obligations, it is evident that sons and daughters do not have this kind of hard obligations to their parents.

If we think about the “good son/daughter” model, it is also obvious that he/she would try to at least keep sone connection with the parents, or to explain to them the point (provided that the parents actually want to hear).

However there are two points that sound strange to me in the OP:

as some other have already noted, it sounds like the purpose of the son/daughter breaking the relationship is to guilt-trip the parents; it seems more likely that they just don’t want to see the parents anymore, so it’s not some sort of punishment game, so framing the question in terms like “shouldn’t people at least know what they are punished for” is weird because the parents aren’t really being “punished” (if the son/daughter really is trying to punish, this would be an example of attempted guilt-tripping, so we can be sure that the relationship will not really really be severed).
also the ambiguity in moral condemnation based on the idea that if I don’t know that what I’m doing is wrong then I’m not really evil; this might be true in an abstract ethics sense, but then are we really trying to know if the parents are really evil in some metaphisical sense?

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Lobsterman 09.17.21 at 2:12 pm

It’s a David Brooks column. He’s lying and/or promoting the beliefs of liars. Sometimes the simplest explanation gets it done.

“missing missing reasons”:
https://www.issendai.com/psychology/estrangement/missing-missing-reasons.html

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Patrick 09.17.21 at 10:40 pm

J-D: Look at your very own contribution to this thread. OP writes,

“The column doesn’t give any detailed examples to think through. But imagine some instance in which you think that both the designation “emotionally abusive” and the cutting off are perfectly legitimate forms of holding responsible. I want to know:

You quote the first sentence, and declare that there’s nothing to discuss. But to do so, you have to ignore the literal next sentence after the one you quoted, which asks a question which stands in spite of the column not giving any examples. This makes your response at 47 all the more confusing… in your own comment, it isn’t as if you acknowledged multiple questions and then just happened to miss the one I was interested in. You failed to notice any questions at all, except one that wasn’t asked, and declared the matter closed.

This whole thread is like that. Crooked Timber is increasingly like that. I don’t think its contributors are cognitively unable to read something and answer it, but, increasingly, they do not.

Sneering is not the obstacle to understanding. A literal willful refusal to understand is the obstacle to understanding.

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